Earlier this week Mickey Duff, the one-time king of the British professional boxing scene, passed away at the age of 84.
Duff was one of the last of his generation of Jewish boxing promoters who all but controlled British professional boxing from the 1950’s until the late 1980’s. He arrived in Britain as a young boy, his family having escaped from his native Poland with little more than the clothes on their back, just before the Nazis invaded.
These days it is hard to imagine a British Jew turning his hand to boxing, but in those austere times, (if you had talent and determination), boxing was one of the few quick ways to escape the poverty trap. There were a number of outstanding British Jewish boxers of the era such as the great Jack ‘Kid’ Berg, who won the world junior-welterweight crown back in 1930.
Hard as it was to imagine in later years, Mickey Duff (born Monek Prager), was the son of a rabbi and briefly studied at the Gateshead Yeshiva, in Newcastle. He lied about his true age and started life as a professional boxer at 15, but after failing to make the grade retired aged 19. After trying his hand at a variety of different jobs he spotted the opportunity to promote boxing fights. It transpired that London in the 1950’s had been waiting for a man of his persuasive talents.
By the 1960’s Duff had become a powerhouse of British boxing – along with fellow promoters Jarvis Astaire and Harry Levene – and became a very rich and influential man through the 1970’s and ‘80’s, an era when Britain was churning out a remarkable number of world champions such as John Conteh, Charlie Magri, Alan Minter, and Frank Bruno.
Duff was held in plenty of respect by the boxing fraternity but was a complex character with a sharp temper. He exuded an air of quiet aggression and had a reputation for being an opportunist with little sense of loyalty. “If you want loyalty, get a dog”, he famously quipped.
In the late 1980’s, working as a 21-year-old ringside reporter for the Boxing News, I filed a report on a fight between a young northern heavyweight from the ‘Duff stable’, and a journeyman older professional fighter. The young buck had built up a superficially impressive record fighting against very moderate opposition, but his unbeaten record gave the impression of a huge new talent. I sat through eight boring rounds of boxing, the only interesting moment being when the old boxer decided to momentarily let down his seemingly permanent protective guard and threw a half-hearted right hook that to my astonishment caused the young hope to visibly wobble.
Duff’s man won on points, maintaining his clean sheet, and was audibly tipped by his manager to be the next “Great White Hope”. In my fight report I suggested the winner might have a “glass jaw”, a phrase that means he can’t take a punch.
A few weeks later, sitting ringside at a similar event, I saw the famous promoter heading hurriedly in my direction after someone had pointed me out to him. He tapped me on the shoulder and stared me aggressively in the eye. I was more than a little unnerved. He was a scary man. A brief, menacing tirade of abuse and expletives followed as Duff, his substantial forehead glistening as he got more worked up, questioned why I wasn’t in kindergarten, and who the hell did I think I was undermining his rising star. He was going to throw me out of the arena and I would never set foot at any of his fights again.
I said I was sorry he didn’t share my opinion, but I had only written the report as I had seen the fight. Duff took a deep breath and calmed down a little. “You’re unzere [one of us], aren’t you?” he said. I nodded, acknowledging I was Jewish, but definitely wasn’t one of his kind. He mentioned that he knew my father, a part-time boxing official, and that if I hadn’t been “unzere” and “his son”, I would have been forcibly ejected from the arena. (Duff had thrown the infamous London gangsters the Kray twins out of one of his nightclubs fights back in the 1950’s. In return, his wife reportedly received a box of four gift-wrapped dead rats the following day).
For the record, the next time the “Great White Hope” fought it was against a much better opponent. There was plenty of talk of a British title fight next, assuming he won. He didn’t. He was knocked out cold in the second round, retired soon after, and has subsequently become a successful television and movie actor.
Mickey Duff’s star was on the wane by the end of the ‘80’s as his grip on the fight promoting scene slipped. His big rival, Frank Warren, was a new East End promoter with an eye for the multi-media future of the sport. Warren’s career very nearly ended prematurely though in 1989 when he was gunned down on a London street one November night. There was frenzied media speculation as to who might have ordered the attempted hit. Eventually, one of Warren’s own fighters, world champion Terry Marsh, who had allegedly been in dispute with Warren over the terms of his contract, was charged. He was later tried and acquitted.
When a brave reporter asked Duff if he had any idea who might have gunned Warren down, Duff’s famous off-the-cuff response was, “It couldn’t have been anyone in boxing. They wouldn’t have missed”.
Like him or loathe him, Mickey Duff certainly led an extraordinary life and left a lasting mark on British sport.
Mickey Duff (Monek Prager); Born Tarnow, Poland June 7, 1929; died March 22, 2014, South London, England